the village
It is the night before Christmas and a thick layer of cottony snow blankets the streets and yards of Hometown, Missouri (Population 311), just as it has every December 25th for over half a century. At the corner of Holly and Cedar Streets, a mother and daughter warm their hands in matching muffs while nearby a gift-laden family huddles together in a horse-drawn sleigh, swaddled in blankets. The wagon is a perfect target for the inevitable snowball thrown by a high-spirited youth.

the villageWhile carolers chirp out the old familiar tunes to fiddle accompaniment, the halls in Hometown are definitely decked. Just look at the vivid stained-glass windows of the church; the doors are open wide and the Minister patiently waits for his flock to arrive. The General Merchandise displays plenty of last-minute gift items in the window and Fire Engine Company 29 boasts a wreath and a tree. Skaters glide on the clear sliver of frozen pond and even the animals in the quiet woods signal a sense of anticipation.

But no one is more alive with breathless expectation than I am as I view this enchanting turn of the century Christmas tableau, painstakingly and lovingly carved by my father, Ed Griesbaum. And no matter what my age, when the village comes out of its boxes each holiday season, I immediately become a wide-eyed six year-old again.

As far back as I can remember, the assembling of "the village" has been a ritual as eagerly anticipated as wrapping packages or hanging stockings. The houses and streetlamps are wired, the cotton unrolled, the buildings assembled. At last, it's time for the best part (to me). Putting the characters of this holiday drama in place has been my job since the age of six or seven when my sister Janet graciously abdicated the position to me. She could not have imagined how long I would tenaciously hold on to the job.

Rich details abound throughout the wooden village. The free-standing fire engine is completely authentic (copied from a museum); its wheels move and it holds a tiny coiled hose. Neatly-made beds can be seen through the upstairs window of the Firehouse. Below, one Fireman leans casually against the doorjamb while his companion rings a handbell. Tiny button-sized cans and folded blankets nestle in the General Store's window. The skaters balance on minuscule blades; one skater is carved with outstretched arms to "push" another skater. The tiniest details never fail to thrill me the most: stacks of firewood, the smokehouse pump with its tiny movable handle, a Cigar Store Indian, a smiling policeman.
It's more than a huge dollhouse; it's a child's dream of Christmas. In fact, it's everything our favorite songs tell us about the holidays: a White Christmas with everyone Home for the Holidays. Silver Bells ring, Sleigh Bells jingle; it's a veritable Winter Wonderland. It's the Christmas we're nostalgic for, even though we never had one like it.

The woods always come last, like dessert, the best saved for last. The animals are not as attention-getting as the blazing lights of the village but to me, they are the true treasures of Christmas. Nestled (by a careful hand) in the downy cotton are large families of squirrels and rabbits; each creature is a different shape and size (as small as 1/4 inch high) and more amazingly, each is graced with a unique personality. A closer look reveals groupings of weasels, raccoons, beavers, foxes, a mother bear and cub, a pair of deer, a spotted turtle and a cheery bird which, with patience, perches on a tree-branch.

Things change from year to year, according to the whim of the child (or child-at-heart) in charge. But certain details, at least to this daughter, are immutable. Sometimes when I'd come home in my 40s, the village would already be up. "That's not right," I fuss under my breath as I surreptitiously moved things around to what I viewed as their "proper" places. The animals must be grouped into families; the rabbit and squirrel families must stand in order of height.

the villageProbably the reason the village affects the hearts of its many fans is the fact that it came from the heart, my father's heart. Though I grew up in St. Louis, my father spent his earliest years on a farm which he loved. My mother's mother was a Missouri country girl as well. My maternal grandfather was a fireman at Engine Company 29 in St. Louis for four decades; no wonder its namesake has such a prominent place in the village. And the tiny animals were carved in a military hospital where my father recuperated from a jeep accident. The war was over, including my father's participation in the Battle of the Bulge; he was no doubt anxious to get to his own hometown. While he was waiting, he began creating one of his own.

My father began the village before he had children and by the time my sister and I were old enough to help set it up, my father's business and family obligations kept him away from carving. His Nativity Scene, complete with a star-studded Bethlehem background, only had one Wise Man for about 25 years until he finally completed the set.

After retirement, my mother encouraged my father to begin carving again, studying the art, striving for improvement, creating more artistically-honed figures. New figures cropped up in the village and the whole place got a paint job. It looks fine but the Christmas village of my childhood needed no improvement. There's so much more to Hometown, Missouri than art or craft; with wood and cellophane, paint and cotton, my father created all that embodies the true Christmas spirit: community, security, faith and hope ... and the joy of the season that perhaps only a child's heart can hold.